PORTLAND — A bill that includes a provision making signature gathering at Maine polling places a crime is not meant to kill the citizen initiative process as critics have claimed, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said Friday.
The bill, which includes a variety of unrelated provisions, is set for a Wednesday public hearing. One provision would prohibit exit polling, signature gathering, electioneering and charitable activities within 50 feet of the entrance to polling places.
Dunlap, a Democrat, said some voters and municipal clerks have complained to his office about aggressive signature gatherers.
“It gets pretty uncomfortable for the voter, I’ve seen it,” he said. “Situations where people are leaving the polls, and they’ll have people signing petitions, and they’ll yell, ‘Excuse me, excuse me, don’t leave!’ People will stop, startled.”
Maine is one of two dozen states that allow residents to place initiatives on the ballot. Over the years, it has seen other efforts to reform signature gathering and conduct at the polls.
The latest effort in Maine follows a North Dakota Supreme Court decision last year that said a man broke a state law by gathering signatures within 100 feet of a polling place.
But voting rights groups and Democratic Sen. Troy Jackson, who co-sponsored the Maine bill, said they’ll fight to remove the provision. Jackson said he wasn’t aware of the provision when he agreed to co-sponsor the bill. He said he opposes any effort that would infringe residents’ right to get initiatives on the ballot.
“It seems like an extreme solution to a rare and minor problem to criminalize the behavior,” said Anna Kellar, joint executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections and the League of Women Voters of Maine. “Which in most instances is people politely sitting at a table and saying to people who come over, ‘Are you interested in signing this?’”
A prohibition could increase the cost of ballot initiative campaigns, Kellar said. She acknowledged that paid signature gatherers have an incentive to be aggressive.
The statewide association representing Maine municipal clerks said it didn’t request the bill and doesn’t have an opinion yet on the change that might also ban PTA bake sales at the polls.
“Sometimes voters just want to be able to walk in, vote and leave and not have to interact with petitioners,” said Kathy Montejo, Lewiston city clerk and legislative policy committee chair for the Maine Town and City Clerks’ Association. “It really depends.”
Dunlap said he understands criticism and that the poll conduct is ripe for lawmakers.
“We want to take another crack at it and see what the legislature wants to do for a resolution, if anything,” Dunlap he said.